Malicious loader programs capable of trojanizing Android applications are being traded on the criminal underground for up to $20,000 as a way to evade Google Play Store defenses.
"The most popular application categories to hide malware and unwanted software include cryptocurrency trackers, financial apps, QR-code scanners, and even dating apps," Kaspersky said in a new report based on messages posted on online forums between 2019 and 2023.
Dropper apps are the primary means for threat actors looking to sneak malware via the Google Play Store. Such apps often masquerade as seemingly innocuous apps, with malicious updates introduced upon clearing the review process and the applications have amassed a significant user base.
This is achieved by using a loader program that's responsible for injecting malware into a clean app, which is then made available for download from the app marketplace. Users who install the tampered app are prompted to grant it intrusive permissions to facilitate malicious activities.
The apps, in some instances, also incorporate anti-analysis features to detect if they are being debugged or installed in a sandboxed environment, and if so, halt their operations on the compromised devices.
As another option, threat actors can purchase a Google Play developer account – either hacked or newly created by the sellers – for anywhere between $60 and $200, depending on the number of already published apps and download counts.
App developer accounts lacking in strong password or two-factor authentication (2FA) protections can be trivially cracked and put up for sale, thereby allowing other actors to upload malware to existing apps.
A third alternative is the use of APK binding services, which are responsible for hiding a malicious APK file in a legitimate application, for distributing the malware through phishing texts and dubious websites advertising cracked games and software.
Binding services, as opposed to loaders, cost less owing to the fact that the poisoned apps are not available via the Google Play Store. Notably, the technique has been used to deliver Android banking trojans like SOVA and Xenomorph in the past.
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Some other illicit services offered for sale on cybercrime markets include malware obfuscation ($30), web injects ($25-$80), and virtual private servers ($300), the latter of which can be used to control infected devices or to redirect user traffic.
Furthermore, attackers can buy installs for their Android apps (legitimate or otherwise) through Google Ads for $0.5 on average. Installation costs vary based on the targeted country.
To mitigate risks posed by Android malware, users are recommended to refrain from installing apps from unknown sources, scrutinize app permissions, and keep their devices up-to-date.
"Google Play has policies in place to keep users safe that all apps must adhere to," a Google spokesperson told The Hacker News in a statement. "All Android apps undergo security testing before appearing in Google Play."
"We take security and privacy claims against apps seriously, and if we find that an app has violated our policies, we take appropriate action. Users are also protected by Google Play Protect, which can warn users or block identified malicious apps on Android devices."